Past Tax Lessons from Jack Kemp

Politicos and tax mavens alike were saddened to hear of the death of Jack Kemp last week. Kemp, who had a distinguished career as a football star before becoming an advocate for drastic tax cuts, was loved and loathed by people on both sides of the aisle. His influence is not just in the past: tax reform contintues to be a hot topic today.

Kemp is best known for making the economic case for lower taxes, but his real innovation was making tax cuts a serious political issue. In past years, tax increases and tax cuts had been a minor part of the political debate: everyone knew they had an impact, but the question of spending was more important than the discussion of how that spending would be paid for.

Kemp’s main argument was that lowering current taxes would increase economic activity: that past tax increases had kept people from opening new businesses, kept new business from expanding, and had, in general, been detrimental to the economy. He argued that past tax policy ignored the real effects of taxes on behavior: that taking 90% of someone’s income instead of 25% of their income would cause them to earn less (or to hide more).

Although Kemp had a serious impact — many past year tax cuts would not have been possible without him, and taxes are central to modern policy debates — he always felt that he did not have enough of an impact. In a speech last year, tax issues were at the forefront: our “tax code that rewards consumption, leisure, debt and borrowing, and punishes savings, investment, work and production,” earned his ire. He wanted to avoid the errors of past year tax mistakes.

Jack Kemp is a great example of how a single person can have a huge impact, without being elected to the highest office. By talking to the right people, and winning the right arguments, he changed the debate nationwide.

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